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Omaha Magazine

Well...How Did We Get Here? Kurt Andersen on Saying ‘Goodbye’ to Studio 360 and More

Jul 07, 2020 11:36AM ● By Sean McCarthy
Kurt Andersen, arms crossed

Photography by Sally Montana

The Saturday morning NPR lineup on Omaha Public Radio, until this past February, resembled a sort of book nerd version of NBC’s old Thursday Night “Must-See TV” lineup. The irreverent quiz show Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! was followed by This American Life, a radio show so popular that it ran for two seasons as a TV show on Showtime. At noon, Studio 360 nourished audiences with a deep dive into a cultural theme each week. 

For almost two decades, Studio 360 aired on more than 200 radio stations. The show had a not-so-secret tie-in with Omaha as its host, Kurt Andersen, repeatedly found ways to mention his hometown roots in segments. In 2004, Studio 360 earned a Peabody award for its show devoted to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. In 2012, it won a second Peabody for its program about the National Recording Registry. 

Studio 360 aired its final episode on KIOS on Feb. 29. True to its Midwestern roots, it had its own Johnny Carson-style sendoff, complete with big guests (Alec Baldwin gave Kurt Andersen an “exit interview”) and a “lump in your throat” serenade provided by Rosanne Cash. Part of that episode’s theme: series finales and how to go out on the right note. 

Andersen is the youngest of four children of the late Bob and Jean Andersen. He went to Westside and he won a National Merit Scholarship. He attended Harvard, where he studied economics and sociology. While there, he chose to join the Harvard Lampoon over the institutional student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson. Like most students who worked on a college paper, the time and devotion to that mistress oftentimes took priority over academic studies. 

“It’s hard to overstate how much of my life was the Lampoon,” Andersen said in a Skype interview from his home in Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut. 

“I went to class and I graduated and all that…but that was most of my life.” 

Despite devoting a significant chunk of time to the Lampoon, Andersen graduated magna cum laude in sociology from Harvard in 1976. He then moved to New York, where he began his writing career with the Today show and Time magazine. 

Andersen co-founded Spy magazine with E. Graydon Carter in 1986. Ten years before The Onion became an online comedic fixture, Spy reveled in mocking the excesses of the ’80s, with New York City being the focal point of most of its targets. Carter later served as editor of Vanity Fair for 25 years, from 1992 until he stepped down in 2017. 

In the ’80s, Spy gleefully skewered the media’s dual obsession of celebrities and the wealthy. It was dubbed in media circles as “The MAD magazine for grown-ups.”  The magazine found its perfect target with Donald Trump, who published his book The Art of the Deal a year after Spy’s founding. Trump graced several of its covers, and in 1988, the magazine described him as a “short-fingered vulgarian.” 

Trump’s threats to sue newspapers and even public figures who disparage him (he threatened to sue Bill Maher for $5 million after the comedian challenged him to prove he was not the son of an orangutan) go back to how he reacted to Spy’s coverage. In a 2015 article in Vanity Fair, Bruce Fierstein, a contributing editor of Spy, wrote of Trump’s repeated threats to sue the magazine. But in a move to show how Trump believes any press can be good press, the real-estate mogul sent a copy of The Art of the Deal to the Spy desk with his handprint outlined in gold to prove the “short finger” dig wasn’t true. Fierstein said that seemingly good-natured response to a joke included a not-so subtle note that stated “If you hit me, I will hit you back 100 times harder.” 

Trump continued to be a subject for Andersen long after his tenure with Spy ended. In his book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500 Year History, Andersen examines the cultural and political landscape that led to the election of Trump. As its title lays out, the book explains how America’s appetite for fake news and conspiracy theories is not a new trend, but a logical extension of a country that gave us the Salem witch trails, P.T. Barnum, and the cultural revolution of the ’60s. 

Fantasyland examined Trump’s takeover of the Republican party through an academic and cultural lens. Another book by Andersen came out around the same time that was purely satire, and co-written by someone who was a perfect target for Spy in the early ’90s: Alec Baldwin.

Baldwin’s portrayal of Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live has become one of the longest-running gags in the show’s history. Baldwin and Andersen met a few times while both were living in New York. Baldwin even filled in as guest host for Studio 360 in 2010. Andersen said Baldwin floated the idea of doing a satiric book about Trump. When Baldwin became enthusiastic about the prospect, he asked Andersen to help write the book. In an interview with The New York Times, Baldwin said “We have that arrangement whereby he [Andersen] doesn’t put on the wig, I don’t open up a Word document.” 

Like most topical humor, the shelf life is short, so there was a rush to get something on shelves soon, even though Andersen had just finished writing Fantasyland. He compared the challenge to writing a movie. 

“I’ve never written anything so fast in my life. It was a whole book in four months,” Andersen said. 

The finished product, You Can’t Spell America Without Me: The Really Tremendous Inside Story of My Fantastic First Year as President Donald J. Trump (A So-Called Parody), was released in November 2017. Andersen traveled with Baldwin to promote the book. He likened the tour to “being the wingman to a movie star.” 

While there are several advantages of being on a book tour with a mega-celebrity, Andersen was reaching a breaking point in terms of juggling all his projects. He was promoting Fantasyland and beginning to lay the formations of a companion book that would later become Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History. On top of that, he was also working on the concept for a television show for Amazon. 

“I was just crazed,” Andersen said. 

Andersen approached Public Radio International (PRI), the producers of Studio 360, and said he felt like he had approached the end of what he could do with the series. In late 2019, Public Radio Exchange (PRX), which merged with PRI in 2018, announced the ending of Studio 360. Andersen said he was able to end the show on his own terms. The staff was able to have a wrap-up celebration after its final episode aired shortly before COVID-19 stay-at-home orders were implemented in New York.  

“The last party before there were no more parties,” Andersen said. “It worked out nicely.”

Studio 360 was bookended by two major historical events. Its first episode aired days before the chaotic 2000 presidential election. It wrapped up a week before stores shuttered and Americans were urged to stay indoors in response to the coronavirus pandemic. In between these two historic events, Studio 360 examined how artists responded to 9/11, the second Iraq War and its resulting fallout, Hurricane Katrina, countless mass shootings, and the 2016 election. 

Arguably the most famous episodes on Studio 360 were from its “American Icons” series, which took an in-depth look into some of the most iconic American cultural contributions. Along with Moby Dick, other subjects of the “American Icons” series included I Love Lucy, The Great Gatsby, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, folk hero John Henry, and Disney parks. 

Jenny Lawton traveled with Andersen to Walt Disney World for the “American Icons” piece. Lawton joined Studio 360 in 2007 as an assistant producer and became the executive producer in 2015. She currently is a senior editor at WNYC studios. 

In a phone interview from her home in Brooklyn, Lawton remembered being ushered backstage by the Disney park staff and seeing such banal moments as people putting on their costumes or taking a break. All of this was away from the public eye and “shrouded in mystery,” Lawton said. 

Lawton then ventured out into the park with her team and remembers seeing a three-year-old child meeting Goofy for the first time. 

“It was the most delightful moment of pure joy,” Lawton said. “It totally zapped the cynic right out of me.” 

Omahans may remember an episode that focused on Andersen’s hometown. In 2007, Studio 360 aired a segment that profiled Saddle Creek records, artist Jun Kaneko, and the North Downtown development effort that brought forth the Slowdown and Film Streams. In the segment, Andersen interviewed Rachel Jacobson, founder of Film Streams. Before moving to Omaha to start the independent theater, Jacobson lived in New York and talked with Andersen a few times when she was working at WNYC. 

In a phone interview from her Omaha home, Jacobson said she sent an email to Andersen while the theater was being built. She asked if he would be interested in joining Film Streams’ advisory board. She was surprised when he responded back, accepting the offer. 

Andersen remains on the Film Streams advisory board. He has moderated discussions with director Steven Soderbergh as well as the cast of the Alexander Payne movie Nebraska. Jacobson said his panels recall the best moments of Studio 360

“You’re just kind of right along with him. He’s an amazing moderator,” Jacobson said. 

Andersen’s latest book, Evil Geniuses, is set to be released in August.

Evil Geniuses is far more concentrated in its scope than Fantasyland. Instead of five centuries, Andersen examines what has happened to the United States over the past 50 years in terms of wealth inequality. In February, the Pew Research Center reported that the top fifth of earners in the United States brought in 52% of all U.S. income. The wealth gap between the richest and poorest families more than doubled from 1989 to 2016. 

Within Evil Geniuses, Andersen writes about the individuals whom he believes played the biggest role in creating the growing wealth gap in the United States. Like Andersen’s previous works, it touches on how income inequality is reflected in the culture (see Ayn Rand, the celebration of Wall Street villain Gordon Gekko, and popular TV dramas that celebrate the excesses of the wealthy). However, Evil Geniuses spends far more time delving into the political and economic realities of the past 50 years. 

The cast of characters of Evil Geniuses is familiar to anyone who followed the ascension of the Tea Party in the late ’00s and early ’10s. The Koch brothers and the late economist Milton Friedman, along with Joseph Coors, who was one of the founders of The Heritage Foundation, are among the “geniuses” Andersen writes about. 

One of Andersen’s biggest targets is Grover Norquist, who founded Americans for Tax Reform in 1985. Norquist was one of the loudest supporters of the Tea Party. The differences between Norquist and Andersen go back to their college roots. Norquist was an editor at the Harvard Crimson, the yin to the yang of the institution-spoofing Harvard Lampoon Andersen edited.

“The single key guy (Norquist) to never, ever raise taxes,” Andersen said. 

Many of the key figures in Evil Geniuses constitute a different wing of the Republican party that was elected in the ’80s and ’90s. In those two decades, the social conservative platform oftentimes overtook their economic platform in terms of what was most heavily promoted during election season. It was reflected in Vice President Dan Quayle’s remarks against the sitcom Murphy Brown for promoting single motherhood in 1992. In 2004, the number of anti-gay marriage state ballot initiatives was credited for giving George W. Bush another term. The economic hard right of today has put far less priority on abortion, gay rights, and religion in the classroom, Andersen said. 

“The Republican party encompasses anti-abortion constituency, but this group—they have eclipsed the Republican party,” he said. 

A lesser-known figure in modern conservatism that Andersen writes about is the late Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell. Like Ronald Reagan, Powell was a Democrat who later became a staunch conservative. Powell’s rightward shift coincided with the ending of the ’60s. 

“He had been so freaked out by the late ’60s,” Andersen said. “He thought the socialist revolution was imminent.”

Before he was appointed to the Supreme Court, Powell worked as a corporate lawyer and sat on the board of Philip Morris. In 1971, he was commissioned by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to write a confidential memo. Titled “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System,” the memo disparaged the New Deal and urged conservatives to attack the media for having an “anti-business” bias if they were critical toward industries in their stories. Andersen said the Powell memo helped bring many of the dreams of the economic hard right of the Barry Goldwater era into reality during the Reagan presidency. 

Though Andersen’s latest book contains plenty of cultural observations, it’s more similar to modern-day economics books such as Freakonomics or Michael Lewis’ The Big Short. Andersen used books and academic journals about economics, automation, and technology as research. He reached out to his sister, Kristi Andersen, to assist on the academic-leaning portion of the research. Kristi is a professor emeritus of political science at Syracuse University.

“He has a wonderful ability to pull historical and political science research together with his observations of the culture,” she said. 

Kristi and Kurt will share the same stage in August at the 8th Circuit Judicial Conference. The conference, which is closed to the public, will mark the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. The event will feature an appearance by Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and will be moderated by Kurt. Kristi will speak on a panel about women’s suffrage.

As a writer who has spent his career documenting the intersections of culture and historic events, Kurt Andersen sees the 2020s as possibly having an even more historical significance than the 1920s, a decade that arguably shaped the 20th century more than any other decade in that century. The 1920s gave women the right to vote, birthed jazz music, showcased both lavish wealth (“The Roaring ’20s”) and the mass-scale poverty that became such a fixture of the first part of the 1930s, not to mention the political environment that gave us World War II. Andersen believes the 2020s will likely be closer to the 1930s, which gave us the New Deal. 

“We’ll see. Who can say,” Andersen said. “Let’s hope we don’t have a Great Depression.” 

Visit kurtandersen.com for more information.

This article first appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.